I can't think of a bigger foreign policy faux pas in New Zealand's recent political history than the absolute train wreck that unfolded this week over Russia. It started with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters bizarre interview on Newshub Nation. In it he denied there was evidence of Russian interference in the US Presidential election, or evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of MH-17.
Those two claims fly in the face of the growing list of charges being brought against Russians by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the mounting body of evidence from the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team, the British Security and Intelligence Committee, and NGO investigators Bellingcat.
I was one of the first political commentators to call out Winston Peters indefensible and incoherent comments, suggesting to maintain credibility in her leadership and for international partners to have faith in New Zealand's membership of security and intelligence sharing arrangements, Jacinda Ardern needed to sack Winston Peters.
It's a call I stand by having made, especially in light with how badly this week has played out for the Government and the damage it will have caused for New Zealand with some of our most crucial security, intelligence, and trading partners. The source of all these issues is Winston Peters, and only by sacking him can Ardern fully restore confidence in her Government's ability to handle significant foreign policy issues.
It continued on Monday when, at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ineptly tried to avoid contradicting her Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and defended his continued push for free trade talks with Russia.
On Tuesday things got worse.
Around the world governments moved to condemn the Salisbury chemical weapons attack and squarely point the finger of blame at Russia, with the Canadian, United States, British, Australian, French, and German governments all taking an extremely firm and united stance against Putin and Russia. All New Zealand could manage was a meekly worded statement from Foreign Minister Winston Peters that was massively out of step with New Zealand's key security partners in that it didn't blame Russia, a point that no doubt would have been noticed by our friends and allies.
A yardstick of the seriousness with which Peters' pathetic response was taken by our security partners, their growing concern about his pro-Putin apologism, and how it was going unchecked in the Beehive, was delivered on Wednesday morning when British High Commissioner Laura Clarke made a rare media appearance via RNZ's Morning Report to deliver a blunt message to Jacinda Ardern - Russia was clearly responsible for the Salisbury attack, New Zealand's refusal to publicly acknowledge that responsibility was not good enough, and New Zealand's pursuit of a free trade agreement with Russia was deeply concerning in light of Russia's increasingly brazen pattern of aggression with complete disregard for international rules based diplomacy.
While Clarke was diplomatic enough in the interview, diplomatic representatives simply do not make media appearances outside of their arrival or departure in the country, unless it is to send a very clear message to the government of the day. Clarke's appearance would only have been the tip of the iceberg, with unofficial back channels being used extensively to convey sterner messages to level nine of the Beehive about the gravity with which New Zealand's actions, or lack thereof, were being taken in Westminster.
Not constrained by the need for diplomacy, the Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong (who is staffed by a former New Zealand Labour Party staffer), and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott slammed Winston Peters' comments, and an even more stinging editorial in The Australian.
The growing domestic and international backlash finally forced Jacinda Ardern's hand.
Having realised how poorly she had judged the entire situation, and the damage that had been already done and the risk of even more damage had she persisted in defending Winston Peters' pro-Putin stance, late on Friday afternoon she issued a joint statement that finally got in line with the significant international outrage at Russia's actions. What was odd about the statement though was that other than Russia's sarcastic response to Britain's ultimatum for a response, nothing much else had changed.
The reason why so many governments got in behind the British position so quickly is because the British shared their intelligence on the Salisbury attack with them, intelligence that would have been shared with Ardern too. She would have had access to that intelligence much earlier in the week, most likely on Tuesday before Winston Peters made his first underwhelming statement on the attack.
The disaster continued to unfold on Newshub Nation. Drilled on whether Russian FTA negotiations had restarted, Ardern was caught out having just denied that they'd restarted, when Lisa Owen pointed out that Winston Peters had already met with Russian officials in Manila, where it's believed the FTA was announced.
What was even more incredible is that Ardern stated the reason for suspending Winston Peters' pursuit of a Russian FTA was that "Salisbury changes things." Really? In case Ardern hadn't noticed, that since invading and annexing the Crimea in 2014, Russia has:
- Interfered with elections in the US, France, Germany, and possibly also in Italy.
- Continued to carry out a clandestine war in Eastern Ukraine.
- Provided military support in the form of soldiers, air power, equipment, and training to Assad's regime in Syria which is again using chemical weapons on civilians.
- Continued to murder and harass political opponents and journalists in Russia.
- Continued to repress ethnic and minority groups within Russia.
- And Putin has even revealed he's antisemitic too in trying to blame Jews for any meddling in the US election!
Salisbury hasn't changed anything. Russia is still the same brutal, aggressive, and repressive dictatorship that it was in 2014 when FTA negotiations were suspended over Crimea, the only thing that changed in that time was that Winston Peters had the balance of power following the 2017 election and used that power to wring a concession for a Russian free trade deal in his coalition deal with Labour.
The height of Ardern's absurd response to her abysmal handling of the situation this week came when she tried to compare what she claims New Zealand is trying to do is just trade on a equivalent basis to how the UK and EU trade with Russia around sanctions.
I hate to tell the Prime Minister this, but essentially the only thing the EU trades with Russia for is to get oil and gas, largely to heat their homes during the European winter. It's something of a necessity, a fact the Prime Minister should be aware of from her own time working for Tony Blair. Some 65% of the EU's trade with Russia is for oil and gas, and New Zealand simply is not dependent on such a relationship in order to not freeze to death each winter. So trying to argue that Peters' FTA plan is little more than trying to trade in a similar manner to how the UK and EU do with Russia is a false analogy.
In many ways what unfolded this week was the culmination of a diplomatic disaster whose first warning signs were very clear made by European Union Ambassador Bernard Savage in November 2017.
This past week Jacinda Ardern has displayed an appalling lack of judgement with her handling of Winston Peters' incoherent comments on Russia, her week long defence of pursuing the Russian free trade deal, and her Government's failure react appropriately to the abhorrent Salisbury chemical weapon attack until late on Friday. It was all capped off by her own poor performances in her post-Cabinet press conference, as well as on Newshub Nation where she has still failed to adequately explain the complete and utter mess of our foreign relations she and her Deputy Prime Minister managed to create.
Most importantly to keep in mind is that this entire episode has damaged New Zealand's international reputation. It will cause our security and intelligence partners to think twice before passing sensitive information to New Zealand, it will make both the UK and the EU more reluctant to concede ground to New Zealand's requests as we work on free trade agreements with them, and we will see less support from them if and when New Zealand takes any international issues we might have to the world stage.
There are also now questions being rightfully asked about why Winston Peters motivations and why is he so single-mindedly obsessed with getting a Russian free trade agreement when he's historically been so fiercely opposed to deals like the TPP, the Korean FTA, and the China FTA.
Why the sudden rush now to do a deal with Putin now, Comrade Peters...?